Deafening Silence A Very Real Chapter

You never get used to a quiet house.

My wife and I love our time together, but as our kids continue to grow – one already off to college and the other in high school – we still feel as if something is missing when we’re in the house alone. Almost as if emulating the old tale of a soldier reaching down to scratch a leg lost in the war years ago, we expect a noise to come from another room reminding us we’re not alone in the house.

Kids are forever. Ask any parent. From the moment they come into this world and first open their eyes, you commit your life to being within an arm’s length years to come. And to a parent who truly understands the relationship, this is not a burden. In fact, you never seem to want it to truly end.

But, as my wife and I are discovering, kids grow increasingly eager to pull the ripcord and jump from the nest.

Last week, with our son home from college and his sister making our home full, we couldn’t have felt any better. Yes, we’ve somewhat adjusted to his moving away years ago. But truth be told, my wife, daughter and I found ourselves creating a ‘new normal’ in his absence. It was like replacing a member of the ‘band’.

But while swimming in a pool of holiday warmth last week, my wife and I one day found ourselves alone in the house as both kids were out with friends. Not that this is so rare, I think we were both a bit sensitive to the moment after finding ourselves back in our old form – that is the entire band together again. The silence was actually deafening. I could hear the heater kick on and a clock in the other room obediently ticking off time. And, if we listened closely enough, we could actually hear each other breathe as we sat next to each other on the sofa.

As I get older I believe I better understand how my mother-in-law felt when all her kids, grandkids, and family showed up for dinner – filling her house to the point of nearly bursting at the seams. Being as she was from a large family and then raised five herself, she probably never adjusted to the sound of a quiet house. To her, no matter how many years would pass, the normal was always a knock on a wall, a chair falling over in another room or hearing the refrigerator closing in the kitchen. For her over ninety percent of her days were spent living among living among the sounds of life. And as living as a widow, there could never be too many guests to drown out the silence.

I’ll admit, I’ve always thought about how nice it would be like to have a quiet house. Granted, I was probably in the midst of running kids from one soccer practice to gymnastics all the while grabbing dinner in a drive-through. But if there is one thing this holiday season is teaching me it is to appreciate the noise. The quiet, once it arrives, can be deafening.

– 30 –

Big Rocks To Break Gridlock

Couple weeks ago a friend and I were talking on the phone when the subject of national politics came up.

“I’m just so frustrated with the entire thing up there (Washington DC),” he said. “They can’t seem to get anything done.”

I should probably add my friend and I have probably cancelled out each others presidential vote since we were of legal voting age. That said we both know each other as much as any childhood friend could. We’ve laughed, fought and navigated high school together. There is very little we don’t know about each other or would be able to closely predict.

“I agree,” I said. “They can’t even seem to agree on what to disagree on.”

This statement is a somewhat milestone for each of us to make – that is both agreeing on a political situation.

All of this, however, got me thinking. If two lifelong friends with much different leanings in terms of political policies are frustrated, isn’t it time to apply an old fashioned theory of determining common ground and moving from there?

There is an old exercise of using an empty jar and pile of stones of different sizes to figure to help you understand what is most important in life. Big rocks (family, health, love) go in first. Medium rocks (a house, a job, opportunities to grow) would go in next. Small rocks (possessions, items of wants you can live without) would go in next. What is surprising about this exercise is how in agreement most people are with their big rocks. The others can vary widely, but the big rocks tend to tie a very visible connecting line between humanity.

Below is my list of five common agreements I believe my friend and I would most likely agree upon – the so-called ‘big rock’ issues.

1.         No child should ever go to bed hungry in this nation. The United States is traditionally the wealthiest nation on the planet. We should make a collective effort to ensure the elimination of hopeless poverty is always a focus.

2.         No child or person should have to go without basic health care options. Again, we need to stop fighting and get to work on this moral issue. We’ve plenty of national wealth. Let’s make sure we take care of those on the very bottom of the economic ladder. If we are the self-appointed moral leader of the Free World, we should start at home and lead by example.

3.         We should not be spending more money than we take in as a normal way of operation. Sure, historically, we’ve seen periods when we’ve needed to break from this model due to significant circumstances (war, severe economic downturns, etc.), but to run our nation in deficit mode without deep thought and an exit plan is dangerous.

4.         Taxes should be fair. Too many people ‘work’ the system and it is truly broken. I don’t think anyone will complain if asked to chip in their ‘fair share’ so long as they know the playing field is balanced and will provide for a better nation.

5.         There will always be people with more and people with less. What is important is we give people the opportunity to apply themselves and move across the economic spectrum with agility and freedom to succeed.

Okay, there it is. Five simple starting points I know my friend and I can agree upon. I realize now comes the hard part – getting there. But if we as a nation honestly recognize what is at stake – our future as a nation – I have faith we can get these big rocks in the jar.

– 30 –

Compassion Still Swims in Sea of People

Among 7.4 millions people, there is still compassion.

Recently I found myself in one of America’s thriving downtown metropolises. San Francisco is a city filled with tall skyscrapers reaching into the stark blue skies, stretch SUV’s which need several attempts to successfully navigate turning a city block, and people exhibiting enough energy to put a large cup of espresso to shame.

Walking out of a local coffee shop, I found myself turning a corner to see a half-dozen people kneeling down around a young man laying flat on the street, his head resting in a stranger’s palm. A few feet ahead of him a white bicycle, is tool of choice among buses, streetcars and automobiles, lay against a stainless steel flowerpot.

“What happened?” said an older lady next to me.

“He caught his front tire in the streetcar track and got thrown from his bike,” said another.

Looking across the street, I paused to see if there was anything I could do only to find a well-oiled ad-hoc team of strangers working together with the precision of team of trained of medics.

Sitting down on a bench, I found myself captivated by seeing how a half-dozen people, most of who were perfect strangers all on busy on their way to someplace important to them, stopped in their tracks to help a young man.

Towering over the newly assembled team, a tall man in a red and black jacket speaking into his cell phone. From my respectful distance I quickly realized he was speaking with an emergency personnel feeding him qualifying questions as an ambulance worked its way though the congested streets. Another person, a woman, leaned over and softly spoke the words to the young man.

Behind this loosely assembled team, hundreds of people raced past carrying bags from the surrounding department and specialty stores. To them, life outside their destination or cell phone conversation was somewhat a virtual experience.

The man in the red and black jacket instructed the team of how to lift the young man as to slide of his navy blue backpack. Two people held the young man’s shoulders as the woman gently slipped the straps over his shoulders and down the cyclist’s arms.

Sitting on the stainless steel bench, several people briefly paused, a few asking me what was going on across the narrow street.

A moment later the youngest of the team collected the bike and wheeled it across the street and to a bike lock station near my seat.

“How does it look?” I said.

“I think he’s going to be okay,” he said with a distinctive English accent. “He’s quite a bump on his head. Medics are on the way. I’m just locking his bike up for him before they take him away.”

Sirens echo loudly though a tall concrete forest like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

Soon the young man was instructed to sit up as his new friends continued to follow direction being sent though a cell phone.

I guess what I found so refreshing in this experience is even in a city of millions of people, all with their on plans, commitments and desires, the human trait of compassion is still embedded in mankind. For the most part, we do care for each other.

And in this week, a few short days before we celebrate Christmas, my present came a week early.

– 30 –

Holiday Traditions Invisible to Some

Christmas is a season rich in traditions – except apparently in our home.

“Why don’t we have any Christmas traditions?” our sixteen-year-old son recently said to my wife.

“What do you mean,” she said, “we’ve lots of traditions – just look around.”

I’d never really thought about it before but family traditions just might be invisible to children while they grow up at home. If, from a child’s point of view, you repeat the same actions year after year, isn’t it just life as normal? Where does the line between a regular action and a tradition separate?

My wife and I found ourselves sitting down and easily recanting a long list of family traditions – at least in our eyes – occurring with each Christmas season. Our son’s oblivious perspective – although enlightening – gave us a great moment of pause to reflect on what a tradition really means.

We began laughing and tossing out what appeared to be obvious “traditions” and wondering how our son never recognized them as such.

We both smiled as we remembered our daughter, obviously terrified, placing a plate of homemade shortbread cookies on the fireplace hearth and running away in fear Santa might come down the chimney at any moment. To this day, with teenagers in the house, we still make the cookies from a family recipe given to me by my grandmother – and leave a plate for Santa.

There is also the “regular occurrence” of selecting a Christmas tree as a family. For years our son refused to go shopping until he could find his “Christmas tree shopping hat” – and old, red and white stocking cap. We can remember keeping track of him by watching the little white ball on the tip of the cap bouncing between the rows of trees as he raced through looking for just the right tree. As the years progressed, the cap eventually found itself tucked safely beneath the cover of his jacket, but never a year passes without a mention and us celebrating the spirit of the cap.

Collecting ornaments is another area we’ve found ourselves regularly practicing. Each year we shop as a family for one special ornament to hang on the tree – the ornament selected to reflect an identifiable moment in our life at the time. And this “regular occurrence” actually began decades ago when my wife and I purchased an ornament to signify our first year together. Granted, we bought it in the middle of July on a clearance table of a hardware store, but seven months earlier it had signified a commitment neither of us were yet ready to acknowledge. In the years following our collection – now in the dozens – we successfully keep the simple, round bulbs hidden in a storage box. The decorating of our tree together is a walk down memory lane for all of us – exchanging and passing down stories and where we were in life at the time with each other.

As I said, our traditions list, although long, is not something we actively manage – it is just an integral part of the fabric of our life as a family. Furthermore, I’m sure everyone could easily do the same – whether it be a special dish made together or traveling to a grandmother’s for dinner. Traditions, I’ve learned this year, just might be something we can’t truly appreciate until we take the time to stop and reflect on what we’ve naturally accomplished as a family over time.

– 30 –

The Upside of Down Times

The other day I found myself in a conversation with a man who, due to his particular field of business, finds himself in an intimate relationship with people who are severely impacted by this extended and brutal downturn in the economy.

“You know,” he said. “If this economy teaches us anything, hopefully it’ll be to appreciate life more than before. ‘Things’ just aren’t as important anymore.”

His words found a welcome home in my heart.

There is no denying this particular stretch of economic disruption is creating pain and suffering on too many good people. As a matter of fact, the term ‘disruption’ is too kind of a term for those who’ve seen their entire lives upended due – many times – to circumstances beyond their control.

Throughout the day I continued to think about the man’s words. There are times you can sense something itching inside of you but it takes someone else to put the feelings into words for you to fully understand how you’re feeling. His words just reinforced what many of us feel today.

They say the best comedy is anchored securely in the truth. Last night I found myself watching a comedian doing a stand up routine when he suddenly brought up the very same subject rolling around in my head all day.

“You know, we (Americans) are the whiniest babies in the world. We have so much stuff we could give half of it away and still have a hundred times more than the average person on the planet – yet we’re never happy.”

He went on to point out how most people walk around with cell phones in their pockets that can do just about anything – yet we complain about it taking a few extra moments to download an image. Or if we’re on an airplane, we think it is appropriate to file a suit if we sit on the tarmac a little too long. One person felt entitled to millions because their coffee  was too hot at a fast-food restaurant.

While I found his diatribe funny, I also recognized the undeniable honesty in his observations. Our current generation of society is conditioned to believe material objects and the action of acquiring them directly reflects on us as a person. Furthermore, many adopted an attitude of entitlement. Not entitlement of basic needs, but of the finest things in life.

Well, something is changing out there. Today more and more people are recognizing our behavior just might be out of synch with what really matters most in life. No longer is the goal to buy the biggest house on the block. Actually, a roof over your head for too many is now just as important.

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve too much ‘stuff’. Somewhere along the line after the economy tanked, I began feeling guilty about the amount shirts, pants and shoes in my closet. While I know it is natural to accumulate clothes, I no longer feel comfortable looking in my closet and seeing items I’ve not worn for a long time. I now see clothes someone else might desperately need. And now, along with many others, I regularly find myself dropping off items at the local Salvation Army or Goodwill stores so they can directly help others.

Anyone who is living though this very difficult and unnerving chapter without a major disruption to their lives should feel very blessed. Let’s not let the lessons this experience is offering go to waste. Let’s remember to thank God and open our hearts to others.

– 30 –

Retirement Not Attractive to Some

The other day I ran into a friend who mentioned of how someone recently asked him about the subject of retirement.

“When are you every going to retire?” they asked my friend.

My friend is an energetic, positive individual. You might even imagine his as the type of individual who gets up in the morning, strides over to the window, pulls the curtains aside — and when the sunlight washes over him — pumps his fist and says “yes, another day!”

“Why would I ever retire?” my friend replied.

“So you can do what you want to do,” came the reply.

“But I’m already doing everything I ever wanted to do,” my friend answered.

That, I believe, is a significant key to happiness in life.

If you know my friend, you know he is telling the truth. He is not so young as to be naive of what challenges life or the world can present, but he’s old enough to be wise beyond his years. For him, he is in control of his life, his surroundings, and his happiness.

The two of us spoke a bit longer before the world called us away in different directions. But as I walked across the parking lot to my car I found myself thinking about his remark about retirement. Sure, my friend could one day retire, but he truly loves what he does each day. You can see the energy in his eyes, the excitement in his voice when he gets an idea he’d like to take to market. To him, the idea of being relegated to hitting a white golf ball up and down a fairway each day would be akin to putting a horse out to pasture. And for my friend, there isn’t a pasture big enough to contain his dreams.

I realize it is somewhat common for people to be planning for that ‘one day’ – they day they stop doing for others and do what they want to do each day. And the right answers are as varied as there are people in the world. Each of us harbors our own secret dream, an idea of what would make us happy each and every day if the choice were ours. And for many, that dream is wrapped up in with a ribbon and the word “retirement” written across the label.

But for my friend, the happiness many delay for the future is something he works hard to make sure is a part of his daily life. We are not talking about material objects here; now we are talking about making sure the things he does or decisions he makes help him lead a life where balance, creativity, and satisfaction earned by hard work are part of his daily mantra.

God blesses each of us with certain talents and opportunities. Sometimes we see them easily, other times not so much. But the opportunities do exist – as my friend will testify.

As the world around us continues to change, we need to always keep in mind we are in charge of our life, our happiness, and our future. And it all starts and ends inside of each of us.

– 30 –